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Review: Creditors (Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Stewart Laing directs David Greig's adaptation of Strindberg's tragicomedy

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Edward Franklin and Lyceum Young Company
© Peter Dibdin

Forget Borgen and The Bridge: if it's real Scandi noir you're looking for then go to the plays of August Strindberg. He may have been born as long ago as 1849, but the Swedish playwright's themes are as relevant to us today as anything that has been produced more recently. Most of Strindberg's plays are exhaustively worked and tightly focused, homing in forensically on a small number of characters in an inescapable situation, and the chilly northern climate in which he sets his stories can often act as a metaphor for the coolness and isolation of the human relationships at their centre.

It certainly does in Creditors. Set in a waterside Swedish resort, the play centres around the novelist Tekla and her sculptor husband Adolph. Their uneasy relationship plays out in the public glare of the artistic scene, and is all the more troubled by the insecurity that Adolph feels due to being Tekla's second husband. He is befriended by the mysterious Gustav while Tekla is away, but Gustav's motives are not all they seem and, Iago-like, he plants seeds of mistrust in Adolph's mind that threaten to undermine his marriage.

Strindberg's dialogue, here in an adaptation by the Lyceum's artistic director David Greig, is like a conveyer belt that never lets the audience go, and it's gripping watching Adolph being led astray by the insidious presence of Gustav, who goes from angel to villain by a winding and convincing path. Between them, Tekla can struggle to become anything more than a construct of what the two men are telling us, but Strindberg's text makes her a vital, living character, not least because she remains so contradictory; sincere in her love for her husband but also prone to being led into dark alternatives.

Adura Onashile and Edward Franklin
© Peter Dibdin

The married couple inhabit their bizarre inner prison very convincingly in this show. Edward Franklin's Adolph is the best performance, consistently conveying the character's fragility and insecurity, always on the edge of terror, and tortured by the fear of being trapped. Adura Onashile is a pulsing, exciting Tekla, but next to those two Stuart McQuarrie's Gustav is a little bland, both in his delivery and in his rather grey stage presence.

More serious problems come in Stewart Laing's staging. It's not a mistake to realise the action as a series of three distinct character duets, but between the scenes he stages a series of misguided interludes featuring a troupe of Girl Guides which kill the tension due to their cartoonish absurdity and the fact that they take so long that they badly outstay their welcome. Furthermore, Laing's promising set – an atmospheric Nordic fishing village – takes a serious wrong turn by setting the third scene behind a closed door, inside a room which all but hides the actors from the audience. Instead, we watch the scene being filmed live by a Steadicam, projected onto a screen above the stage. It might bring us closer to their faces, but otherwise it's distancing and unengaging. If I'd wanted to watch TV I'd have stayed at home.

Consequently, the play ends with a pathetic whimper when it should be a devastating catharsis, which is a shame when you consider the strengths of the leads. Ultimately it left me cold, but that's perhaps not surprising when you consider its northerly latitude.